Teaching Kids Touch: Consent vs. Grandma’s Feelings
Earlier this week, I shared a story, thoughts, and discussion on Facebook that I want to expand and make more findable here, on the subject of forcing children to hug and kiss other people, especially in order to be polite.
I had shared this recent piece by Katia Hetter, “I Don’t Own My Child’s Body,” and it’s a great, provocative piece, and I very much agree with the central concept. The author writes, about not forcing her child to hug her grandmother if she doesn’t want to:
She doesn’t have to hug or kiss anyone just because I say so, not even me. I will not override my own child’s currently strong instincts to back off from touching someone who she chooses not to touch.
I figure her body is actually hers, not mine.
It doesn’t belong to her parents, preschool teacher, dance teacher or soccer coach. While she must treat people with respect, she doesn’t have to offer physical affection to please them. And the earlier she learns ownership of herself and responsibility for her body, the better for her.
This is clear enough – children own their own bodies, and have their own rights to withhold touch of those bodies. It’s a good skill for them to develop early on.
My own take a nutshell:
I think it’s appropriate to teach children that if they feel uncomfortable hugging or kissing *anybody,* at *any time,* they don’t have to. I think it’s inappropriate for children to be taught that they must consent to any kind of touch *in order to make other people happy or more comfortable.*
The topic generated some controversy among a few of my Facebook friends, though. In particular, objection focused on the “grandma” aspect, arguing that hugging or kissing her against one’s will wouldn’t harm anything and would make an old lady happy.
No, I don’t think that forcing a kid to hug your nice, sweet grandma one time is going to lead to sexual abuse. The problem is not that grandma might be a sexual predator, although that’s possible. The problem is the failure to support children in defining their own boundaries for touch and consent, and the message the forcing sends that children – now and throughout their lives – should reluctantly consent to some kinds of touch in order to not hurt someone else’s feelings.
As a child, I was often instructed to go around and hug everybody and tell them goodbye at family gatherings. I was extremely uncomfortable with this routine, and there were certain adults – mostly adjacent men who are not part of the family anymore – who I actively tried to avoid and dreaded being forced to hug. Did those men ever molest me? No. One of them actually hid my shoes, and another young female cousin’s shoes, making me feel extremely uncomfortable and as though I couldn’t escape the house where we were. Being explicitly told that this guy was in fact creepy and I did not have to hug him, even if I’d hugged everybody else, would have validated my feelings and also made me feel less vulnerable. I don’t blame my parents for that situation, but I think of it when I think of wanting to allow children to trust their own instincts about touch.
Another personal example:
I walk as part of my car- free commute. Not too long ago, I was offered a ride by a man in a windowless white van. Silence of the Lambs, anybody? But it wasn’t just the vehicle that was creepy, it was this exchange:
Driver: You want a ride?
Me: No, thanks.
Driver: Are you sure, it’s no trouble.
Driver: Aww, come on, you’ll hurt my feelings.
This is exactly the kind of shit predators say to potential victims – especially women – to play on their socialization toward being nice and helpful, and not to hurt anybody’s feelings. Other creepy-ass dudes who have tried to bother me while I’m walking have pretty much all had some variation on this women’s socialization approach – often starting by asking me for help.
Who doesn’t want to be helpful? Who wants to ignore somebody in need? Who wants to hurt sweet ol’ granny’s feelings when all she wants is a hug?
There’s a reason we tell children not to go with some adult who claims to need help finding their puppy – it’s because we understand how “can you help me?” functions as a ploy to get potential victims off their guard by taking advantage of their socialization.
“It’s just a hug” and “you’ll hurt my/her/his feelings” function in a similar way. It tells children that they are not the ultimate arbiters of what kind of touch they’re comfortable with and when, that somebody else’s feelings are more important than their own needs, discomfort, or boundaries.
I believe this message is part of a continuum that encourages victims to feel responsible for their own abuse (“If I’d trusted my instincts…”) and makes it easier for predators to groom and attract their victims (“You don’t want to hurt my feelings, do you?”).
Aunt B has talked about this idea here, and although I can’t quite articulate why yet, I think this is somehow related to the idea of “enthusiastic consent” that Jacyln Friedman and others have been discussing – an idea that acknowledges all the fucked up ways we convince people to give up consent to touch (sexual or otherwise), rather than encouraging touch to happen when all parties are explicitly willing and actively consenting. I’m also seeing this as part of a culture and continuum that until recently refused to acknowledge that wives could be raped by their husbands, because of expectations of what wives were “supposed” to always consent to, just by virtue of their relationship.
In the same discussion, a couple of people created analogies about chores or eating vegetables – that requiring children to do either also overrides their will for their own bodies. One commenter explained the difference:
“I think forcing kids to be physical with other people is completely different from making them follow rules, behave respectfully, do chores and homework, etc… All those other things help that kid become a functional adult.”
Indeed. Learning to actively consent or refuse consent to touch is also a skill for healthy adulthood, while learning that consent must be given to protect other people’s feelings imperils both body and mind. As I also wrote there:
I think the difference with the food analogy is that a strange (or even familiar!) or unwanted food is never going to try to coerce you to eat it by playing on your socialization of being expected to eat it without making it feel bad – an approach I’ve heard from quite a few victims of sexual assault and other unwanted touch.
Finally, what went unacknowledged in the discussion was the fact that when children are physically or sexually abused – and women are raped – the abuser is most often someone the victim knows. So all those folks who want to say, “It’s just grandma, it’s just family, it’s just Uncle Creepy,” are ignoring the fact that the very people you are most like to force your children to hug or kiss are also the most statistically likely to be the abuser of your child. There is no magic “but we’re family” protection, and family is not always safe – pretending it is again overrides children’s instincts and creates vulnerabilities for them.
Bottom line: I think it’s actively harmful to force children to hug/kiss adults they don’t want to just to be polite, because of the lessons it sends them about bodily autonomy and consent, because it teaches them to ignore their own feelings and instincts, and because it creates the very vulnerabilities predators so often employ. Outside of rape and sexual harassment apologists, it should be apparent that as adults we have the right to refuse consent to intimate touch, and I can’t think of any compelling reason why this should be different for children.
Stray thoughts: an old friend mentioned the issue of having a child with a sensory processing disorder, and how she constantly has to help protect her child’s boundaries with people who – being totally aware of the child’s condition – refuse to modify their touching behavior to seek consent first. I think this is another important consideration – some folks may have physical or emotional needs for reduced touch. Just like you may think it’s polite for all guests to take their shoes off when entering your home, but this can actually be harmful to your guests with diabetes, those who are concerned about “not hurting anybody’s feelings” should consider the feelings and physical needs of those who are being asked to give up their right to consent. To not do so is itself not polite.